Harper optioned to Triple-A Syracuse

Nats top prospect struggled after missing time with calf injury

By David Heck / Special to MLB.com | March 18, 2012 4:10 PM ET

Throughout Spring Training, there was speculation that Bryce Harper could make the jump from Double-A to the Major Leagues for Opening Day. In the end, however, the Nationals decided the he wasn't quite ready.

The team optioned Harper to Triple-A Syracuse on Sunday, giving him a chance to further refine his hitting. MLB.com's No. 2 prospect also will spend most of his time in center field, a position he played in only 20 games last year, to prepare for his potential role with the big league club.

"He knows how much I love his talent. He is a special player," manager Davey Johnson told MLB.com. "He needs to go down there and do the same thing he is doing. He doesn't need to change anything for me. He just needs to go play.

"I basically said to him, 'If I had you up here and you were 1-for-10, I would probably have people [saying we rushed you].' I don't want that hanging over us."

Harper began the spring well, collecting five hits in his first 11 at-bats, but faded significantly after that. The 19-year-old phenom was kept out of the lineup for more than a week due to a strained left calf and went 3-for-17 with nine strikeouts following his return. That included his final game on Sunday, when he doubled but also struck out four times.

Although he had his struggles, Harper said he was able to learn from veterans during his second big league camp. He also vowed not to be cut the next time around.

"I loved being up here with all the guys and all the veterans and see what they do every day," Harper told MLB.com. "I always listen to [Jayson] Werth, Zim [Ryan Zimmerman], [Jason] Michaels. I get something from Michaels every single day. That was huge. It started from Werth in the outfield. I really took advantage of that. It helped me out. It was good."

Selected first overall in the 2010 Draft, Harper batted .297 with 17 homers and an .894 OPS between Class A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg last season. He enjoyed even greater success in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .333 with six homers and a 1.034 OPS in 25 games.

While he was disappointed to be sent down, Harper made it clear he understood the Nationals' reasoning. He echoed Johnson's sentiments about the backlash that would have followed from any type of slump and said he still hopes to make a Major League impact soon.

"I didn't want to go up there, go 2-for-15 and everybody is all over me and saying that he needs a little more seasoning," Harper said. "I just want to go down there, get better, get on my groove, get on a streak, get called up and hope to be a game-changer for the Nationals."

David Heck is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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